U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on Sunday warned Syria against using chemical weapons, implying it would prompt military consequences, as it did last year when President Donald Trump ordered a strike on a Syrian air base, CNN reports.
“Right now we’re getting reports — I don’t have evidence that I can show you — but I’m aware of the reports of chlorine gas use. I just want to reiterate it would be very unwise for them to use weaponized gas. And I think President Trump made that very clear early in his administration,” Mattis told reporters while en route to Oman.
Trump launched a cruise missile strike at a Syrian airbase last April after Assad used chemical weapons to attack civilians, killing more than 80 people, including many children. Asked if the Trump administration was intending to react militarily, Mattis said the president has “full political maneuver room” to decide on a response.
“I’m not going to strictly define it. We have made it very clear that it would be very unwise to use gas” as a weapon, he added.
Fierce fighting is continuing and the Syrian army says it has surrounded a major town in the rebel-held enclave, BBC adds. More than 1,000 civilians have been reported killed in recent weeks. The Syrian military has been accused of targeting civilians, but it says it is trying to liberate the region – the last major opposition stronghold near the capital Damscus – from those it terms terrorists.
Rescue workers and activists in Eastern Ghouta say the Syrian government has used chlorine during its assault, but the government denies this. Mattis also condemned the killings of civilians in Assad’s offensive against rebels in Ghouta and said Russia could be complicit in the slaughter. The United Nations estimates that 400,000 civilians are caught in the fighting.
Mattis said reports show that “Syrian troops are at best indiscriminately attacking civilians and at worst targeting hospitals. I don’t know which it is, whether they’re incompetent or whether they’re committing illegal acts or both.” But he said Russia, which has been propping up the Assad regime during the eight-year civil war, bears some of the blame.
“Assad could not be in power right now absent Russia’s unfortunate veto in the U.N. years ago and the Russians’ full-throated military support for Assad. They are Assad’s partner. Whether the airplane dropping the bomb is a Russian airplane or a Syrian plane, I would prefer to not say right now. Either Russia is incompetent or in cahoots with Assad. There is an awful lot of reports about chlorine gas use or about symptoms that could be resulting from chlorine gas,” Mattis said.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Mattis declined to say whether there was evidence that Russian forces had directly killed any civilians or dropped munitions near Eastern Ghouta, where Syrian regime and rebel fighters are locked in an intense battle. Nearly 1,100 civilians, including 154 women and 227 children, have died, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring group.
Mattis also blamed Russia for Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, which Russia said it would help eliminate as part of an agreement in 2013, but which the U.S. and international observers said Syria used on civilians last year. He noted that Russia is the guarantor of a 2013 agreement stripping President Bashar al-Assad of chemical weapons after an attack in which hundreds of Syrian civilians were killed. Now, however, U.S. officials consider Russia, aligned with Assad’s regime, to be complicit in the reported chlorine-gas attacks.
“Russia was the framework guarantor that (Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad) would get rid of all of it. Again, either Russia is incompetent or in cahoots with Assad,” Mattis said.
According to Stars and Stripes, Mattis said that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent speech highlighting nuclear weapons that he claimed could be used to attack the United States was “disappointing but unsurprising” and does not alter the Pentagon’s strategic plan to counter Moscow.
Mattis said he saw no change in Russia’s military capabilities in Putin’s presentation, which showed cruise missiles that could strike U.S. cities. He also expressed skepticism at the much vaunted roll-out of supposedly new, high tech Russian missiles, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed are “invincible” and have unlimited range.
“Regardless of how much money they want to put into this arms race with themselves, the U.S. approach remains the same. At the end of the day, they can sink all that money in and it does not change my strategic calculations. I just assumed it all would happen. I get paid to make strategic assessments. And I would just tell you that I saw no change to the Russian military capability and each of these systems (Putin) is taking about that are still years away,” he said of new Russian weapons.